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What’s Lost When We Photograph Life Instead Of Experiencing It?

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By Rebecca Macmillan

At a conference on June 14, Facebook executive Nicola Mendelsohn predicted that the social networking site would be “all video” within five years.

“We’re seeing a year-on-year decline of text,” she said. “If I was having a bet, I’d say: video, video, video.”

Meanwhile, a recent article in The New York Times chronicled the lives of a group of young socialites – the “Snap Pack” – who plan their nights around snapping photos that can be shared with their followers. The reporter explained:

For them, taking photos and videos from Instagram and Snapchat is not a way to memorialize a night out. It’s the night’s main event.

These two stories each arrive at the same conclusion: Images are taking over.
Increasingly, images have become a crucial part of communicating with others, receiving affirmation and documenting new experiences. And though it may seem that a barrage of colors and pixels and faces and scenery could only enrich our imaginations and enhance our engagement with the world, the opposite seems to be taking place.

In her article ‘Instagram Is Ruining Vacation’, journalist Mary Pilon described how, when visiting a temple in Cambodia, a sea of tourists became so preoccupied with capturing the perfect, shareable picture that, ironically, “no one was really present”.

Indeed, the compulsive urge to immediately, electronically exhibit one’s self is a phenomenon made uniquely possible by our digital age. Yes, there are benefits to being able to share more images with a greater audience. But the impulse to incessantly document and post has taken precedent over simple focus and direct human connection.

While it can be difficult to neatly measure this shift, researchers across a variety of disciplines are beginning to see and understand its consequences.

Life In A Self-Reflective Bubble

As psychologist Sherry Turkle writes in “Alone Together“, “Life in a media bubble has come to seem natural” in the 21st century.

With the aid of our phones and computers, no matter where we are or who we may be near, we are constantly connected to and interacting with others. But taking photographs and creating videos have become a central part of this digital exchange.

Psychology professor John R. Suler interprets constant photographing and photo sharing as a quest for confirmation. He writes:

When we share photographs, we hope others will validate the facets of our identities that we embedded in those images. Knowing others can see the picture gives it more emotional power. Feedback from others makes it feel more real.

In pursuit of digital affirmation, even ordinary experiences become fodder for photographs.

Instead of staying present – being (and really observing) where we are – our impulse is to capitalize on all lived experiences as an opportunity to represent and express ourselves visually. Part of what’s troubling about this kind of tenacious documentation is the thin line between representation or expression and – as with the “Snap Pack” – the marketing or commodification of everyday life.

Personal photo collections, publicized through applications like Instagram and Facebook, risk primarily becoming a tool for self-promotion. The ability to constantly measure public feedback for each posted photograph enables, and may encourage, users to tweak visual representations of their own lives in an effort to simply maximize a positive response.

“Every narcissist needs a reflecting pool. Just as Narcissus gazed into the pool to admire his beauty, social networking sites, like Facebook, have become our modern-day pool,” wrote Tracy Alloway, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida.

In a 2014 study, she and her team examined the relationship between Facebook use and empathy. They found that, while there are elements of social media that strengthen social connections, the platform’s image-based features – the ability to share photos and videos – particularly feed our self-absorption.

A woman uses a selfie stick in front of a field on the outskirts of Wuhan, China. Image source : Darley Shen/Reuters
A woman uses a selfie stick in front of a field on the outskirts of Wuhan, China. Image source : Darley Shen/Reuters

Creativity Requires Concentration

But repeatedly pulling away from our real time experiences to take out our smart phones – and then frame, photograph, filter and post – has the adverse effect of interrupting focus. By focus I mean the ability not only to closely observe but also to concentrate, to pay extended attention.

In his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” technology writer Nicholas Carr reflects on neuroplasticity, which is the capacity for our neural circuits to change in response to stimuli. Specifically, he discusses the ways our minds have evolved in response to relentless engagement with digital technologies. About web browsing, he writes, “Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious.” Similarly, repeated breaks to post images and track their reception threaten to fragment attention and increase anxiety.

As a result, we risk having other aspects of our surroundings and experiences slip away. While we may become better at multitasking, our ability to concentrate deeply over longer periods of time is weakened.

Carr continues:

The mental functions that are losing the “survival of the busiest” brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought – the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon.

In other words, the kinds of attention that we’re constantly reinforcing through habitual photo-sharing seem to develop at the expense of those that we need to engage with, say, books. Sven Birkerts, author of “Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age,” links literature with focus, insisting that “Works of art are feats of concentration.”

“Imagination,” he continues, “is the instrument of concentration.”

Baseball fans take photos and videos as Chicago Cubs infielder Kris Bryant hits.
Baseball fans take photos and videos as Chicago Cubs infielder Kris Bryant hits. Image source: Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

An Empathy Gap?

In a 2013 study hailed by novelists, researchers from the New School for Social Research reported a correlation between reading novels and increased empathy.

It’s likely that many teachers of literature (myself included) reacted with a shrug, since the study confirms what we’ve been saying all along. Literary works offer us the opportunity to imaginatively linger on (rather than simply glimpse or swiftly scroll through) others’ experiences of the world. But we can only seize on this opportunity if we’re able to pay attention – if we allow ourselves to slow down long enough to absorb what we observe.

While that particular study received some pushback, taking the time to engage with prose, poetry and even photography has certainly allowed my students and me to carefully investigate the contours of a range of experiences. It has also compelled us to concentrate with intention on how these experiences matter in relation to current events.

I think, for example, of poet Claudia Rankine’s highly acclaimed book “Citizen: An American Lyric,” which uses both images and text to dwell on the realities of contemporary American racism in its myriad forms – pushing readers to take stock of the inequalities that structure our present day.

“More and more,” notes Birkerts, “I believe that art – via imagination – is the necessary counter to our information-glut crisis.”

If we’re too busy snapping and promoting photographs, or if we’re too scattered because we’re perusing the photostreams of others, we’re unlikely to emerge from “life in a media bubble.”

We’ll miss what’s happening around us. And we won’t be able to give the world the empathy and attention it requires and deserves.

Rebecca Macmillan, Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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